Saturday, July 4, 2009

I left my heart in…

…San Francisco. Again.

This time it wasn’t the cowboys that captivated me, but the cows. Driving back from Napa en route to the Frisco airport on the last leg of my annual California journey, I rear-ended my rental when I found myself completely awe-stuck and staring out the passenger window at black & white striped cows. A little Googling later revealed that these magnificent beasts are actually peppercorn Belted Galloways, identifiable by the distinctive white belt of hide that runs between their midsection. Drop dead gorgeous!

This latest gander to The Golden State taught me many things about myself, chief among them that I have changed. Once upon a time “drop dead gorgeous” was reserved for the Johnny Depp types who wandered into my acting classes at NYU. There was even a time before that, before I moved to New York at the ripe old age of 18, when I didn’t know what a black & white cookie was. Now I risk fatality slowing down on speedways to catch a glimpse of cows. Collisions aside, I’m the happier for it. (And P.S., as someone whose most common experience in a car is in the back of a yellow cab, I always spring for rental insurance.)

So I’ve learned I like cows? Sorta.

I like green. I like grass. I like grass-fed beef. I like living somewhere, if only for a week, that makes a green lifestyle achievable. New York has many virtues, but “greenery” does not rank chief among them. It’s hard to live green in any city, and even with all its access and the liberal politics of the Urban Elite, New York can seem especially crippled by corporate giants who must get off on profiting from the chronic disease laden industrialized diets of a population trapped on an island without a stitch of farmland. A wet dream for the processed food set, if ever there was one!

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I know it ain’t gonna be popular ‘round these parts, BUT, in my humble opinion, the food in the Bay Area is better than the food in New York. I’m not talking about restaurants, I’m not talking about scenes or experiences, I’m strictly talking food. And what that really amounts to is produce and proteins, both of which are in a league of their own out west because both are grown out west. How can the Hudson Valley compete with the Salinas Valley? The North Fork with Napa? The Hamptons with Carmel?

If New Yorkers wanna eat green there are grub-hubs that cater to their tastes, but if they wanna eat local, they would be denied citrus, olives and artichokes for starters. Hell, even the berries in San Fran, a summer staple at farmers’ markets in Manhattan, are in a league of their own out west. As an on-the-go breakfast before my cycling odyssey over the Golden Gate bridge, destined for sardines at Fish in Saulsalito, I picked up a tub of strawberries in the Ferry Plaza and mixed it with cottage cheese from Cowgirl Creamery that was so good it hurt…quite literally, pangs of jealously shot through me when I experienced what real cottage cheese tastes like. Sprinkle a little Spearmint Sugar from Allstar Organics on top of the berries & cream, finish it off with a macchiato shot from Blue Bottle Coffee Co., and for under $10, a San Franciscan can start her day with what is truly a breakfast of champions.

That’s something else I learned on my western adventure: cooking in Cali is pure joy. I’d never had the opportunity to find myself in a California kitchen before this most recent visit, and you better believe I made the most of my good fortune by cooking up a pasta littered with fresh morels and fava beans, accompanied by grilled bruschetta topped with local blackberry honey and sour cherry compote. The next morning I followed that up with an herb and triple crème omelet made from newly laid chicken eggs I myself collected from the hen house! Sharing good food with good friends in their incredible Napa Valley farmhouse has set the bar for eating, and drinking, locally. Their ranch also lays claim to a winery that produces killer cult cabs and a private collection to make you cry.

Last summer I predicted a move west was imminent in 5 years time; it’s now 4 years and counting!

Those home-cooked meals weren’t the most refined food of the trip, but they were surely the most remarkable. Another thing travelling taught me about myself? I prefer home-cooked to haute cuisine! Don’t get me wrong, I did some serious restaurant hopping and had exceptional bites worthy of praise all across Northern California, but again and again, I found myself much more compelled by simple, sincere dining experiences than the flagship destinations that garner all the stars, all the fame, and all the big ticket price tags.

Hands down, the best bites I had on this trip came from the insanely inspired menus at Nopalito and Ubuntu. Any good foodie has heard the buzz about Ubuntu’s vegetarian fare, which absolutely redefines vegetables without a soy burger in sight. Both have soul, Ubuntu shares its space with an exceptional yoga studio and a hot-off-the-presses Annex next door, but the recently launched Nopalito also boasts a creation story to warm your heart while sipping your café con leche. The husband and wife team behind Nopalito, and its sister spot Nopa, backed their latest venture with Nopa’s Mexican line chefs at the helm. After years of being spoiled on staff meals of grande proportion, they decided their cooks’ carnitas and quesadillas were worthy of a venue all their own. And of course, that venue features a sustainable, organic kitchen that takes great pride in sourcing its ingredients locally. That’s as green, and glorious, as it gets!

But there were truly a plethora of food finds that rattled my taste buds on this last trip westward. It’s not easy picking favorites when surrounded by excellence on all sides, but I can tell you that for my money, The French Laundry doesn’t make the Top 10. Indeed, take a peek at my slide show and you’ll see I found a better use for Keller’s menu the next morning as we packed “essentials” for our afternoon hike above Calistoga. If pressed, I would rate my experiences as follows:

1.    Nopalito (San Francisco)
2.    Ubuntu (Napa)
3.    A16 (San Francisco)
4.    Blue Bottle Coffee Co. (San Francisco)
5.    The Ferry Building: Boccalone, Far West Fungi, Acme Bread Company, Cowgirl Creamery (San Francisco)
6.    Chez Panisse (Berkeley)
7.    Miette (San Francisco)
8.    Fish (Sausalito)
9.    Bouchon (Yountville)
10.    Ad Hoc (Yountville)
11.    French Laundry (Yountville)
12.    Sausalito Taco Shack (Sausalito)
13.    Gitane (San Francisco)
14.    Bottega (Yountville)
15.    Beretta (San Francisco)

What California can really teach us all is how to pioneer a lifestyle that is both greener and more delicious than most. Biking, hiking, cooking, forging, dining, drooling over the abundance of local produce and the sincerity of slow food cuisine, makes me wanna get serious about cutting the industrialized “fat” from my diet and start living a food life I can really be proud of. I can talk and write about doing exactly this until the cows come home, but if I’m honest with myself, in order to do his right, I may just have to mooooo-ve west!

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3 Responses to “I left my heart in…”

  1. Svetlana

    Well, let’s see what happens in 5 years, and yes, I agree: Cali food is the greatest – their produce is phenomenal, and it does remind me of going to Italy a little (Italian markets with truffles and ripe tallegio might have something to do with it), and though NYC is so much closer to Amsterdam, Paris, and Milan, San Fran also has the weather going for it. All year round gardening… fresh fresh fish… you just might have to travel there once a year!
    After I returned from my 5 days in LA, it is hard to stop thinking about livin the dream on the West Coast.

    Meanwhile, get out of your blooz/funk and go pick up some good cheese to have with your coffee this morning!

  2. Kimberly Belle

    Totally!!! I’ve always remarked how much like Italy, California can feel, and of course, Italy is my favorite European country. Thanks for the good cheer and the thoughtful response. I have a dream to grow a green thumb, if ever I can let go of my 5th floor West Village walk-up and move West. We shall see!

    P.S. I am in fact eating a gorgeous wedge of Constant Bliss brie as I type.

  3. Shrazzi @ Getting Fresh in the Kitchen

    Great restaurant list Kimberely! Eating fresh foods, respecting nature & making it all look so damn sexy!

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